The concept of a shared support service center is a simple one: the administrative staffs of two or three academic departments are merged into one central entity where staff members can specialize in a certain department, but be available and prepared to handle responsibilities outside their specialization.
Implementing such a service, however, is not an easy process. The departments and programs in the Humanities building are currently in the tedious blueprint phase of having their administrations merged into two shared support services—English, writing and cultural analysis theory will make up one and European languages, Asian and American studies and Hispanic languages will make up the other. But there’s a reason these departments are following in footsteps of art and theater, which are now operating under a shared support service as of earlier this semester.
Nancy Squires, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and the person overseeing the implementation of shared support services, said that the first step in merging academic department administrations is determining which groups would benefit the most from that kind of service. This was done last spring semester by analyzing and discussing the data and results of benchmarks completed by Bain & Company, a consulting firm that aided the university with Operational Excellence, one of three prongs in President Stanley’s Project 50 Forward plan. Shared support services is part of Operational Excellence.
“It has to do with things like how many departments within the group have a person or staff member devoted to student advising,” Squires said. “How many have none, where the student advising is done maybe just part-time by somebody who has many other duties? Those kinds of things differ wildly within departments.”
Factors such as discipline and geography determine which groups are selected for shared support services, Squires said. Only related departments with similar needs will be put under the same administration, and they also have to be in the same building. Physics and art, for example, would not be combined because of those reasons.
In the case of the Humanities merger, some staff members in that building, such as Margaret Hanley, the undergraduate advisor for English, said they were told that the departments were undergoing this process because Humanities is overstaffed. While Squires agreed that the reason the Humanities administrations are being combined is because undergraduate and graduate support there is much higher than almost any other area within the College of Arts and Sciences, she did not agree with the terminology. “Overstaffed is not the right word,” Squires said. “They have more staff, say for student services, than do other groups on campus.”
And with the understanding of Humanities being overstaffed, the staff members displayed concerns about the likelihood of layoffs. The staff members said that layoffs were never mentioned at any of the meetings they attended on the matter. Squires said she never addresses the topic, except to assure that layoffs will not happen.
“We’re not thinking about layoffs,” she said. “It never occurs to me to talk about layoffs when I meet with groups because it’s not something we’re thinking about. But they got what turns out to be misinformation. They get anxious about it, and I wish they would just come and ask me.”
Although there is no definitive plan for how the two new shared support services in Humanities will be structured, one prospective idea involves the creation of a faculty supervisor position to oversee the administrators. Squires said this position is being considered, but that it depends on the areas and departments because they all have different needs. Compensation for this position will also vary from teaching reductions to possible salary raises, but nothing is certain at the moment.
The duties of the administrators will not change under a shared support service, Squires said. Specific tasks will be moved around, and in some cases a job that might have four people handling it will be reduced to one person who does that position best. This reflects the core goal of a shared support service, which is to “deliver good services with fewer people,” Squires said. Staff members said they believed they will be doing more work with no pay raise, but Squires said the workload will be the same, but more balanced.
Because of the $82 million in budget cuts to the university over the last four years, cuts were made to the expenses that cover administrators’ salaries, causing some to leave voluntarily or retire. Shared support services will make up for the loss of those positions, as well as serve as a form of relief during the current hiring freeze.
“The increases in efficiency are really important, but it saves money in the sense that we can’t replace all the people we lost,” Squires said.
As with the development of any new concept, some issues are posing as problems for Squires as she tries to move forward with a plan. The Hispanic languages department, which will be under one of the two new Humanities centers, currently resides in the library, so the logistics of its transportation is still a work in progress. Squires said she is considering the department as one of those selected groups because the assistant chairperson retired last semester, and a staff member from one of the Humanities centers is currently helping to fill in that position.
Staff members like Hanley said they feel like they are not being thoroughly communicated with about the process. Hanley said she had a very unclear understanding of what was exactly going on. “There’s no timeline,” she said. “There’s no vision. It’s all very abstract.”
Squires said she communicates with the staff members regularly through meetings where she discusses the project in detail.
“One of the very important and interesting things about this process is that even though these staff members are all in the same building, they don’t have chances like this to compare notes on how they do things and what they do, so the conversations are very interesting in terms of who likes to do what, who hates to do what,” she said.
Hanley and her colleagues said they are very skeptical and hesitant about shared support services in Humanities. Hanley compared the concept to a DMV and said she is afraid that it will de-personalize the departments so that students won’t have the individual connections they have now with staff members. She said the project is already having an effect on the building.
“There’s a lot of anxiety,” she said. “It’s changing the environment of the building . . . Why break what’s already not broken?”
Students, too, are uneasy about the shared support services. English majors especially said they are unhappy because Hanley, who is popular with students, will potentially no longer exclusively advise for that major. Unbeknownst to Hanley, rumors went around that she was fired, and that provoked senior Rob Huneke to create a petition-like Facebook group to fight it. But even as Huneke and other students began to understand what was really going on within Humanities, they were still not happy.
“That would be taking her away from the attention of the English department students,” Huneke said. “It’s infuriating because as a student you pay tuition for educational services. What’s equally important to the teaching of the professors is the guidance [we] receive.”
The process departments go through during a shared support service implementation differs from group to group. Squires said there is no cookie-cutter way to plan out something like this, as it all depends on the needs of the staff members and their specific areas. There is also no timeline for these projects; to ensure that the Humanities centers are successful, Squires said that all parties must move forward together.
Despite the lack of definitive progress, Squires said she is hopeful about a successful outcome for the initiative.
“My goal here is to better serve the students, but also improve the lines of staff people, which both of these things are very, very important to me,” she said. “And I think that by exploring ideas, sharing support and joining forces among different groups of staff people, we can achieve that. So I’m very optimistic.”